Trump says he was smart to let Turkey and Kurds fight it out first

US President Donald Trump's decision to pull out from Syria drew rebukes from both the Democrats and Republicans.
US President Donald Trump's decision to pull out from Syria drew rebukes from both the Democrats and Republicans.PHOTO: AFP

DALLAS/WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump insisted on Thursday night that he was smart to let Turkey attack America's Kurdish allies in northern Syria, comparing the two warring sides to children on a playground who need to slug it out before settling their differences.

Speaking at a campaign rally hours after Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brokered a truce, Mr Trump defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Syria, effectively clearing the way for a brutal Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters who had fought for years alongside the US against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.

The President's decision to pull out drew rebukes from both the Democrats and Republicans, who accused him of abandoning America's friends. But he said the violence of the past week was useful.

"It was unconventional what I did," he acknowledged. "Sometimes, you have to let them fight a little while. Sometimes, you have to let them fight like two kids," he added. "Then you pull them apart."

While he has previously denied giving Turkey the green light to attack the Kurds, Mr Trump implied on Thursday night that he had actually done so in order to persuade the two sides to come to terms.

"Without a little tough love, they would never have made this deal," he said.

Although Mr Trump has been quick to hail the deal, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have vowed to move ahead with sanctions on Turkey.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Maryland Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen said they welcomed the agreement, but will continue urging their colleagues to sign on to the sanctions Bill they introduced on Thursday.

That measure would sanction Turkish leaders, financial institutions and its energy sector, as well as prohibit any US companies or individual from buying the country's sovereign debt.

Senators from both parties said the deal Mr Pence outlined does not do enough to protect the Kurds. Mr Graham said the deal was encouraging, but he does not trust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"We are ready to come and hit Turkey hard if they don't get out of Syria and reset the table," Mr Graham said. Referring to his sanctions proposal, he said that he will "continue to get co-sponsors, but this sounds positive".

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, said he did not see Mr Pence's announcement as a win for the Kurds.

"From what I understand, it is not a ceasefire," Mr Rubio said.

"You have 100 and x number of hours to get out of here before we kill you."

The Graham-Van Hollen measure is one of four Bills that have been introduced in recent days to sanction Turkey for invading northern Syria.

The Trump administration had imposed some sanctions on Turkey earlier this week, but Mr Pence said those will be re-evaluated as part of Thursday's deal with Mr Erdogan.

Mr Van Hollen said it is "within Turkey's power" to avoid these sanctions by drawing back from Syrian territory that had been controlled by the Kurds.

"We do not want these sanctions to have to go into effect," he said. However, he said that Congress will insist on punishing Turkey if it does not change course.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel, who sponsored the bipartisan House sanctions Bill, said his committee will continue with its work on penalties on Turkey.

"I am glad there is a ceasefire, it is a good sign, but let's see if it lasts," he said. "Last time I had confidence in Turkey was a long time ago."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer dismissed the deal with Turkey, saying in a statement that Mr Trump is "flailing" and Mr Erdogan has "given up nothing".

"Next week, the House will pass a strong, bipartisan sanctions package to work to reverse the humanitarian disaster that President Trump unleashed in Syria," they said.

"Our service members, our allies and our partners all suffering from the Syrian conflict deserve smart, strong and sane leadership from Washington."

The sanctions in the Graham-Van Hollen Bill would be effective immediately upon enactment unless the Trump administration goes to Congress every 90 days to certify that Turkey is not operating unilaterally in Syria and has withdrawn its armed forces, including Turkish-supported rebels, from areas it captured beginning on Oct 9.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'Trump says he was smart to let Turkey and Kurds fight it out first'. Subscribe